‐ As one wag has said, “The worst part about being a domestic terrorist is all those midterms you have to grade in 20 years.”
‐ The bombing of the Boston Marathon was a savage attack on a public festivity in the heart of a major city. The prayers of every decent person go out to the dead and the maimed, their families, and the city of Boston itself. The bombs (two exploded, two defused) were pressure cookers packed with nails and ball bearings — a simple concept, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and described in 2010 in the al-Qaeda online magazine Inspire, in an article titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.” Anyone, of course, can follow a recipe, and as we go to press, no one knows whether the bombers were jihadists, right or left anarchists, or mere nuts. Civil society is vulnerable to leaderless resistance — individuals and grouplets carrying out mini-attacks on their own. We must respond with prudence, diligent intelligence work, stoicism, and good spirits. We are better than they are, and stronger.
‐ The Senate’s “Gang of Eight” is introducing a bill on what is now called “comprehensive immigration reform” and used to be called “amnesty.” The normalization of the status of illegal immigrants is supposed to be contingent upon the government’s satisfying certain empirical measures of border security. An early look at the proposal suggests, however, that legal status will come well before any real evidence of security at the border and workplace — and that legal status, however theoretically provisional, will stick. This is particularly alarming because legalization can be expected to stimulate more illegal immigration unless security measures are working. As more details emerge, it will be important to see if the bill reforms legal immigration to make it less heavily weighted toward unskilled labor. And, bearing in mind that the United States is not just a market but a nation, our immigration system should be designed with full assimilation in mind — a goal that is not compatible with the presence of a permanent class of imported labor without the rights and responsibilities of Americans. Our immigration policies are haphazard, dysfunctional, and sometimes perverse. That doesn’t mean they can’t get worse.
‐ President Obama ceded his weekly television address to Francine Wheeler, mother of Ben, who was killed along with 19 schoolmates in Newtown, Conn. “We have to convince the Senate to come together and pass common-sense gun-responsibility reforms,” Wheeler said. Victims and their relatives come forward in the wake of crimes and other horrors to bear witness to their or their loved ones’ pain. They also hope that public action can wring some meaning out of woe. For that to happen, however, the actions they propose must be reasonable and just. Whatever our suffering, we cannot and should not escape normal political discussion. Otherwise the bully pulpit becomes the bully’s pulpit. This leaves President Obama, who gave Mrs. Wheeler her opportunity. To the extent he believes in gun control, he is right to call on advocates who will be effective. To the extent he is taking an opportunity to hit his political enemies by means fair or foul, he is — a normal politician.
‐ Retirees’ Social Security checks are adjusted each year to keep up with inflation, and so are the thresholds for tax brackets. Most economists agree that the government overadjusts for inflation. President Obama has said he would be willing to move to a more accurate measure, which would reduce Social Security spending and raise tax revenues. Republicans should say no. The tax thresholds should rise more, not less, every year: They should keep up with inflation and with real income growth, so that average tax rates do not rise automatically when the economy expands. And there is a case for letting retirees’ checks rise over the course of their old age: 85-year-olds need more help than 68-year-olds. Obama says the inflation-measurement change is contingent on Republican acceptance of other tax increases: They are expected to trade one tax hike for another. No deal.
‐ Pro-lifers browbeat the mainstream media into covering the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who ran a filthy clinic where some women died and newborns were murdered. Pro-choicers argued that the case illustrated the need to relax laws against late-term abortion, which, as a result of Supreme Court decisions, are almost never enforced. (Gosnell’s is the second case we have ever heard of in the entire post-Roe period.) The grand-jury report concluded that it was the reluctance of pro-choice state governments to monitor clinics that allowed Gosnell’s practice to fester. One angle we would be amazed to see the press cover: President Obama has argued that late-term abortion should be legal, and has argued and voted for letting newborns delivered in, for example, the fourth month of pregnancy be killed. That isn’t an aspect of his record he wants to advertise, since he understands that these issues make the public recoil from the abortion lobby. Which helps explain why journalists recoil from the story.
‐Mother Jones, which apparently has developed a Nixonian taste for secret tapes, recently published an account of a political-strategy meeting of Senator Mitch McConnell and his advisers in which they contemplated a possible challenge from Hollywood liberal Ashley Judd. The Republicans, according to Mother Jones, were plotting to make Ms. Judd look like an emotionally unbalanced, out-of-touch extremist who could not possibly be trusted with political power. Unfortunately for her political career, Ashley Judd has been doing precisely the same thing, as anybody who has followed her pronouncements will have noticed. While we sympathize with the mentally ill, we cannot imagine that if, e.g., Sarah Palin had been obliged to spend a month and a half in a mental institution, as Ms. Judd did, the ladies and gentlemen who staff Democratic campaigns and magazines such as Mother Jones would have exercised tender discretion regarding that fact — and it is a relevant fact, after all. And not all of Ms. Judd’s strangeness is related to the diagnosable or the clinical: She has a penchant for saying oddball things in public, and for expressing political opinions acutely at odds with those of a great many Kentucky voters. What the tape shows is that challenging Mitch McConnell is not for amateurs.
‐ Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky libertarian, spoke at Howard University to try to find common ground between Republicans and blacks. He managed to find some, as when he criticized the excesses of the drug war. He was less successful when he pointed out that historically the Republican party was more hostile to segregation than the Democrats: The students knew perfectly well that Strom Thurmond joined the Republicans. Paul himself temporized on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming he had “never wavered” in supporting it and not mentioning that he had criticized one of its key provisions, the prohibition on private acts of racial discrimination. Senator Paul should be commended, and emulated (especially by those many Republicans who lack his history on the Civil Rights Act). How many black voters can be persuaded to vote for Republicans is an open question, but we know it will not happen if Republicans do not try.
‐ Dr. Ben Carson, the celebrated pediatric neurosurgeon, withdrew from the commencement ceremonies at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he was to speak. After Carson criticized gay marriage in a TV interview, students and faculty circulated a petition protesting his appearance. Carson explained in a statement that he did not want to “distract from the true celebratory nature of the day. Commencement is about the students and their successes.” His stand-down was gracious, modest — and wrong. It gives the heckler’s veto to every busy grievance collector. One of the things commencement celebrates is the ability of students, fortified by their educations, to begin independent adult life. Life is complicated and full of controversy. Evidently Johns Hopkins grads have yet to learn that.
#page# ‐ The academic honors are raining down on Kathy Boudin. The Weather Underground terrorist, who already has an adjunct professorship at the Columbia School of Social Work, was named by New York University Law School as Rose Sheinberg Scholar in Residence (for “working on cutting-edge issues of gender, race and class”). Boudin knows about cutting edges. In 1981 she drove the getaway car in the hold-up of a Brink’s truck in which two police officers, Sergeant Edward O’Grady and Officer Waverly Brown, and one guard, Peter Paige, were gunned to death. After a decade on the lam, Boudin served 22 years in jail. She never truly repented for her role in these murders (she says she wrote letters of apology to the families of her victims but never mailed them). Yet none of that matters to an academic establishment that’s still starry-eyed about 1960s radicals.
‐ The Department of Health and Human Services announced that it will need twice as much money as it thought to help the states that are setting up exchanges to implement Obamacare. It announced as well that a part of the law that was supposed to help small businesses will be delayed. Kathleen Sebelius, the head of the department, said she did not expect as much opposition as the law continues to inspire. The great triumph of Obama’s first term is turning into the great headache of his second.
‐ Gun control is struggling in Congress. It has much more support at the U.N., where the Obama administration is backing an arms-trade treaty. The State Department had originally supported the treaty conditional on its passing by consensus, meaning that every nation would be considered party to it. But even after Iran, Russia, and other nations declared that they would vote against it or abstain, the Obama administration signed it anyway, bringing the U.S. a step closer to submission to whatever “international norms” emanate from the process, while letting rogue nations do what they like. Were the U.S. to ratify it, the document would burden American sovereignty and provide a legal bludgeon for enemies of the right to bear arms. But treaties require a two-thirds majority in the Senate — a threshold that this treaty cannot meet, if senators are well-informed about its effects.
‐ When he saw “Catholicism” and “Evangelical Christianity” in a list headed “Religious Extremism,” a soldier at an Army Reserve training session last year in Pennsylvania asked for a copy. He then lodged a complaint. The Army has apologized, explaining that the list was produced “without anyone in the chain of command’s knowledge or permission.” Not only were the religion of Mother Teresa and the religion of Billy Graham grouped with, inter alia, al-Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan, but “Sunni Islam” and “Islamophobia” were both on the list, an association that offends logic. The geographical provenance of Sunni Islam was identified as “Iraq,” while al-Qaeda got to be “transnational.” Catholicism was a “U.S.” religion, never mind that man addressing the world from his balcony in Rome. The Army, which was embarrassed by all this, understands that it’s charged with national security, not the spreading of confusion about religion. That’s the media’s job.
‐ “The science is settled,” the global-warming alarmists keep telling us, even as evidence continues to undermine many of their assumptions. No one is shocked that Texas has more droughts than, say, Seattle, but the Lone Star State’s droughts have been especially severe in recent years. In his February 2013 testimony before Congress, John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, claimed that the most recent drought is the second worst on record. All of the usual suspects happily blamed global warming for the drought, which caused numerous forest fires. President Obama mocked Texas governor Rick Perry for being “a governor whose state is on fire, denying climate change.” But a newly released study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that global warming did not cause the drought: The Gulf of Mexico’s jet stream failed to transport the necessary moisture. Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the NOAA and the report’s lead author, said, “Climate change was not a significant part, if any, of the event.” This news comes after the finding that global temperatures have not risen in 15 years. It’s the alarmists who are in a dry spell now.
‐ Tensions on the Korean peninsula are as high as they have been in years: North Korea has threatened its neighbors and the United States with nuclear attacks, and it has cut off lines of communication with the South and abrogated the two countries’ non-aggression pacts. This is not unprecedented, and the U.S. has responded predictably. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Asia recently; he pressured China to pressure North Korea (a tactic that has never worked and won’t until the North is on the verge of collapse), and in South Korea he suggested that the U.S. would be open to bilateral talks with the Kim regime (which have also never succeeded in winning any concessions). With the situation so fraught, and the Defense Intelligence Agency confident that North Korea has a nuclear missile, it is especially important for the U.S. to abandon the failed policy of engagement it has pursued for two decades now and recognize that denuclearization of North Korea via negotiation is a fantasy. One wise decision of the Bush administration, the expansion of our Pacific missile-defense systems, only belatedly implemented by the Obama administration this year, has had lasting benefits. We should also resume the financial and diplomatic pressure the U.S. began putting on the Kim family regime during the Bush administration.
‐ Once again, Palestinians appear to be letting the opportunity for statehood slip through their fingers. The United Nations General Assembly gave Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, a green light to get on with it, and Washington evidently believes it’s time for those final negotiations with Israel that will allow everyone to live happily ever after. President Obama declared that Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister since 2007, are “true partners” of Israel for these intended negotiations. That was unlucky timing. Abbas speedily sacked Fayyad, so the two aren’t even partners of each other anymore. Since Abbas’s mandate expired four years ago, he has lost such legitimacy as he had, and relies instead on strong-arm methods. That’s by no means all. Fayyad, who was educated in America and employed by the International Monetary Fund, was a genuine rival to Abbas and might have set in place the sort of state the West could have approved. Financial transparency would have put an end to the statelet’s corruption. Ridding themselves of Fayyad, Abbas and his cronies keep their hands on the immense subsidies the world thinks it is paying to Palestinians. In all likelihood, they will have sabotaged the prospect of negotiations, made Obama look foolish, and left themselves at the mercy of Hamas, rivals even more mercenary and ruthless than they.
‐ Egypt looks more and more like a failed state in the making. President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood now in power are creating conditions of poverty, extremism, and lawlessness from which all — and, first and foremost, the Coptic minority — will suffer. Eastern Christians, Copts are estimated to number at least ten million in a country of 85 million. For centuries they’ve been treated as second-class citizens. Islamism raises the level of violence. In El Khusus, about ten miles north of Cairo, a dispute escalated into a gun battle that left four Copts and one Muslim dead. Hundreds of Copts and Muslim sympathizers gathered for the funeral of the four in Cairo’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, a building that predates the arrival of Islam. Fighting broke out between the mourners and young Muslims. Summoned, the riot police either fired tear gas into St. Mark’s or just stood around. Two more Copts were killed, 84 injured. Soon afterwards, four Copt activists were arrested. Morsi promised to protect Copts but a spokesman from the Ministry of the Interior blamed the violence on them. “We want action, not words,” said Pope Tawadros II, recently elected head of the Coptic Church. The action so far has been dismaying and is likely to get worse.
#page# ‐ There are 1.3 billion people in China, and the state does brutal things to many of them. One can hardly cite every case. But let’s consider one of them: that of Shen Hongxia. We learn of her through an admirable group, Women’s Rights Without Frontiers. She lived in a village called Dabancheng in Hubei Province. She died in one of those forced sterilizations. As the aforementioned organization says, “a doctor [in] Tongshan County warned that sterilizing Shen Hongxia would be life-threatening. Nevertheless, local Family Planning Officers forcibly sterilized her, in order to avoid an ‘illegal pregnancy.’ Shen Hongxia, 42, died, leaving behind her husband and two children, one of whom is two years old.” When people say China is no longer a totalitarian state, remember stories like this one.
‐ When the British want to encourage someone to persevere against insuperable odds, they say, “Remember Rorke’s Drift.” It’s the sort of stirring, heroic military episode from Britain’s glorious imperial past that David Cameron probably wishes had never happened: In 1879, in South Africa, 150 of Her Majesty’s tired, ill-equipped soldiers miraculously held off 4,000 Zulu attackers (freedom fighters, in modern parlance) for twelve harrowing hours. For many years the family of Private David Jenkins has insisted that he was one of that gallant band of defenders, but the army refused to recognize the Welshman, citing a lack of evidence. Recently, though, the National Army Museum used a pencil sketch of a kneeling rifleman at Rorke’s Drift to publicize a contest it was holding. The sketch was made after the men returned home by Lady Elizabeth Butler as a study for her painting of the battle. She was known to have used actual Rorke’s Drift veterans as her models, and when Jenkins’s great-grandson saw the sketch, he noticed that the kneeling man had the same features as those in a photograph of Jenkins. He notified the museum, and now Private David Jenkins has, at long last, been added to the Roll of Honour for Rorke’s Drift. Well done, soldier.
‐ It’s always awkward to receive gifts while traveling: The useless slow-cooker that’s too bulky to bring home, the hideous sweater that you won’t put in your suitcase for fear someone might see you unpacking it. President François Hollande of France found himself in just such a situation when he went to Mali to receive thanks for suppressing an Islamist rebellion there. (France was deposed as a colonial power in the 1960s but still intervenes in Africa when needed, like a divorced husband who drops by for the occasional bit of fraternization.) The grateful Malians gave Hollande a camel, which from a Malian’s perspective has manifold uses but to a modern urban Frenchman is distinctly de trop. They clearly expected him to take it home, so he muttered something about picking it up the next time he was in town and then packed it off to lodge with a local family — which, “evidently misunderstanding the purpose of the custody arrangement” (reports the New York Times), “fashioned [the camel] into a tasty tagine, a regional type of slow-simmered stew.” But no matter; the Malians have promised to procure another camel and this time deliver it to Paris.
‐ Princeton alumna Susan Patton, a member of the class of 1977, urged Princeton co-eds in a letter published in the Daily Princetonian to make use of their time on campus to “find a husband.” Never again, she argued, would they be surrounded by “this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” This, she said, was the advice she would give her daughters if she had any. A few days later, in a Slate piece titled “Marry Young: I got married at 23. What are the rest of you waiting for?” Julia Shaw made the case against delaying marriage until after achieving career success and financial security. “Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up,” she said of her own marriage, “it was how we have grown up and grown together.” The pieces set off a firestorm, with professional feminists lining up to pour vituperation on the pair. Patton expressed astonishment at the “extreme reaction” to her letter. She could legitimately be criticized for snobbery. The sin for which both women were pilloried instead was daring to suggest that anything other than a career might be the “cornerstone” of women’s “future and happiness.”
‐ On March 29, the Wall Street Journal gave the country a breath of fresh air. It came in the form of an op-ed by Suzy Lee Weiss, a high-school senior. It began, “Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they — we — were lied to.” Young people were told to be themselves — which was fine, said the author, as long as their true selves had “nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms.” If she had known before what she knows now, she wrote, she “would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. ‘Diversity!’ I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.” On she went, in this delightful vein. She put some noses out of joint — offenders of the pieties always do. But we look forward to more writing from this refreshing source.
‐ Columbia University has awarded Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Their citation praises “his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist.” Stephens’s work at the Journal, and as editor of the Jerusalem Post before that, is some of the most incisive thinking on the issues the United States faces abroad. When the Pulitzer Prize committee brings itself to honor a conservative voice, the honor is the greater. Congratulations, Mr. Stephens.
‐ Joan Baez, the folk singer, went to Hanoi for the first time since 1972. In that year, the Associated Press tells us, she and her friends undertook a “peace mission.” That may be true, but most Baez types were less interested in peace than in a Communist victory. The North Vietnamese government, says the AP, “was happy to welcome those prepared to listen to its side of the story.” It welcomed those who would advance its propaganda aims. During her return visit, Baez “closed her eyes and sang out the African-American spiritual, ‘Oh Freedom.’” Baez explained that Vietnamese people must not blame American soldiers: “They were just kids; they were just following orders.” Yes, and they were also trying to keep Vietnam from the fate that in fact befell it. When the Communists conquered all of Vietnam, they killed about a million people and instituted “re-education” camps and other horrors. If that spiritual had been sung by anyone subject to the regime’s power, it would have been treated as an act of subversion.
‐ Many have documented the ridiculousness that passes for education in our nation’s colleges, but “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” — a study of a liberal-arts college in Maine, conducted by Peter Wood and Michael Toscano of the National Association of Scholars — is particularly thorough and alarming. Not only did the authors take note of the various goings-on on campus, but they compared the school’s current course offerings with the classes taught decades ago. Basic survey courses are much rarer than they used to be, but students looking for a freshman seminar might try “Queer Gardens,” a course about the gardening of lesbians, and about “the link between gardens and transgression.” Wood identifies the college’s turning point as 1969, the year in which it dumped universal requirements; today, the only courses that are required are those needed for a student’s major. The report is a must-read for students considering the school and for their parents — and, more broadly, for those concerned about the liberal arts.
#page# ‐ John McCandlish Phillips played his life by ear. On his way home to Boston one day in 1952, he heard God tell him to disembark from the train in midtown Manhattan. Following a trail of bread crumbs to the offices of the New York Times, he applied for a job as a copyboy there, and the next thing he knew he was “the Ted Williams of the young reporters,” as his colleague Gay Talese described him, “a natural. There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.” The superstar of the city desk, Phillips retired from full-time journalism at the top of his game, in 1973, to tend the church he had co-founded a decade earlier up in Morningside Heights. From his home in a building half a block down the hill from the main gate of the Columbia campus, he directed a small Christian publishing house while with the other hand he typed out occasional freelance gems for the Times and the Washington Post. He mentored Christian journalists and prayed for his neighborhood. His faith was stronger than his vanity. “A man of dignity and honor which is very much uncommon,” Talese added. “A very honorable person.” Dead at 85. R.I.P.
‐ There was a time, children, when Mouseketeers did not grow up to be drug-addled sex toys. Annette Funicello, most popular of the original 1955 cast, became an iconic child and young-adult star. After three years in the Mickey Mouse Club, she handed in her ears to appear in a number of movies and TV shows. At age 21, she began starring in beach movies; since the main draw was seeing Miss Funicello in ample two-piece bathing suits, she had become a sex toy of a sort, though not a sort that we would now recognize. In the mid-Sixties she married her agent and concentrated on their three children. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the disease that ultimately killed her, she set up a foundation to study neurological diseases. Her career was lighter than air, yet it was neither lurid nor tabloid fodder. Dead at 70. R.I.P.
‐ It is easy to forget that until the 1990s, Texas politics was dominated by Democrats. George W. Bush was only the fourth Republican ever elected governor of Texas, and only the second since Reconstruction. Turning the state around took a great deal of work, big political ideas, and tremendous amounts of the life’s blood of politics: money. Houston real-estate developer Bob Perry helped a great deal with the last of these, and thereby enabled the other two. Perry began his career as a political financier in 1978, with a $5,000 investment in the campaign of Bill Clements, who became the first Republican governor of Texas in more than a century. From there, Perry took an interest in a number of candidates, including Rick Perry (no relation), who was at the time the agriculture commissioner, and became active in issues such as tort reform, an area in which Texas’s aggressive approach has become a national model. In 2012, he contributed some $23 million to groups supporting Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates, and he poured money into Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC. He was a key supporter of the unfairly maligned Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which countered John Kerry’s heavy reliance upon his service record in the 2004 election. His life was intertwined with public affairs, but he was himself an intensely private man. Dead at 80. R.I.P.
Margaret Thatcher R.I.P.
Margaret Thatcher was the greatest peacetime British prime minister of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time; and her achievements in foreign policy were second only to those of Winston Churchill.
In domestic policy, she reversed the decline of the previous 30 years and revived both the British economy and the British spirit. She brought inflation under control and established sound money; brought the unions under law, so dispelling the idea that Britain had become “ungovernable”; defeated the miners’ strike, so entrenching her reforms; revived the enterprise culture that Britain had pioneered a century earlier but lost; and started what became a worldwide revolution of privatization. Ten years after the strike-ridden “winter of discontent,” Britain’s economy had become the fourth-largest in the world.
In foreign policy, she was instrumental to the free world’s victory in the Cold War — a victory achieved “without firing a shot,” as she put it. She was steadfast and vocal in her support of the NATO policy of installing cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe. The success of that policy, against the vehement objections of both the “peace movement” and most parties of the European Left, marked the point at which the U.S.S.R. lost the Cold War. She improved on that success by identifying Mikhail Gorbachev as “a man we could do business with” and warmly recommending him to Ronald Reagan as such. Her early endorsement of the Soviet leader was one reason the Cold War ended peacefully, almost on friendly terms.
In addition, she won the Falklands War, defending popular sovereignty and asserting British will against incompetent bemedalled dictators.
Mrs. Thatcher — we prefer to call her by the name she was known by in the days of her glory — made enemies who remain bitter to this day, as some comments on her death from the British Left miserably illustrate. Her shade must be content with the praise that is rising from the formerly Communist nations in which she remains a heroic and loved figure — and from the United States, which was second only to Britain in her affection.
To sum up such a remarkable life is not easy. We cannot improve upon the attempt by Lord Saatchi, head of the think tank she founded and the shaper of her victorious election message in 1979: “Everyone wants to be immortal. Few are. Mrs. Thatcher is. Why? Because her values are timeless, eternal. Tap anyone on the shoulder anywhere in the world, and ask what Mrs. Thatcher ‘believed in,’ and they will tell you. They can give a clear answer to what she ‘stood for.’ She developed all the winning arguments of our time — free markets, low tax, a small state, independence, individuality, self-determination.”
Checking the Bill
The central feature of the bipartisan gun bill, introduced by Republican senators Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk and Democrats Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer, is unlikely to work. We remain fans of Toomey, but on the issue of expanded background checks, he is in the wrong.
Currently, background checks are required only when federally licensed dealers sell guns. Many gun sales occur outside this context. The Toomey/Manchin legislation would require background checks to be conducted before a sale at a “gun show” or “pursuant to an advertisement, posting, display or other listing on the Internet or in a publication.” The bill does not require background checks for exchanges between family members, friends, and neighbors, or, it appears, for any sale through the grapevine (although the implications are unclear on the question of sales advertised on the church bulletin board).
The provision would create new hurdles for law-abiding gun owners, requiring two private parties to seek out — and pay — a federally licensed intermediary before they could carry out a simple transaction. Worse, the vagueness of the legislative language would make it difficult for private sellers to determine whether a given sale required a check. Even the most innocently intentioned of firearms transfers would acquire significant legal risk.
The provision is likely to prove as difficult to enforce as to follow. Police and prosecutors would have to devote considerable resources to the parsing of close cases and the ferreting out of intent: Was that sale covered by the requirement or not? This mess would likely lead to the reappraisal of today’s legitimate and uncontroversial exclusions as tomorrow’s unacceptable loopholes. Indeed, the very same “gun-show loophole” that Toomey/Manchin attempts to close was once a perfectly respectable member of the class of private sales the bill makes a show of protecting.
As a condition of its (by all accounts still limited) Republican support, Toomey/Manchin attempts a few conciliatory gestures for gun owners. It exempts individuals who already have valid concealed-carry permits from background checks. It allows the interstate sale of handguns under certain conditions. And it reaffirms the illegality of a federal firearms registry, creating stiff penalties — 15 years in prison — for any government official who misuses or illegally retains firearms records.
The registry provision is symbolic, and if Toomey/Manchin becomes law, there will be a considerably more extensive federal paper trail on gun ownership than there was before. In any event, none of the conciliations ameliorate the flaws in the background-checks provision that make it unworthy of support.
Preventing criminals and those who are dangerously mentally ill from obtaining guns is a worthy goal of law. But such a law should stand a credible chance of success, and refrain from unduly burdening lawful citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights. The Toomey/Manchin bill does neither.